Tag Archives: Underground Film

Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-Robert Curry

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

Twenty Personal Favorites

“Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life.  During the quarter of a century (roughly from 1935 to 1960) in which going to the movies was a normal part of my week, it would no more have occurred to me to write a study of movies than to write my autobiography”-from the preface of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections On The Ontology Of Film

I believe it’s true of anyone who feels passionately about the cinema that, as Cavell puts it, “memories of movies are strand over strand with memories” of one’s life.  Every time people even talk about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight I think of my first girlfriend and the man in the theater who overdosed and prompted the theater manager to empty the theater we were in.  Similarly, Ringo Lam’s City On Fire always makes me think of my walk to work at The Video Store when I was a Junior in High School (Sunday mornings my brother and I always watched a Hong Kong action film before I went to work).  I have found that the films that I have the strongest memory attachments or the most memories with tend to be my favorites; I suppose that is true of most people.

Yet conditions of viewership have changed drastically since Stanley Cavell first wrote those words in 1971.  The cinema is more a part of our homes than our nightlife, more of a private affair than a communal reverie.  Home Video formats of any type (even streaming) take the cinema from the cinemas and bring it home to us.  In addition the vast repertoire of titles available for the home far out number the annual re-releases.  

The audience owns the cinema now more than ever.  And as you read on it will become apparent that these are the recollections of a singular cinema.  It’s a series of highlights from the Robert Curry program of films that have played the Robert Curry theater at the Robert Curry film festival for only Robert Curry.  It may be disconcerting, but it is true.  The cinema has vastly diverged from the stage.  It is a private affair.  You are alone and the film you are watching is the only other sign of life in the room.  One might say that it is intimacy at its most convenient.

bathingbeauty12

Bathing Beauty (1944)

Dir. George Sidney, cast: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone

I have no clue when I first saw Bathing Beauty.  It had to have been after Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon but around the same time as Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate.  Though I probably enjoyed The Crimson Pirate more as a kid, Bathing Beauty has managed to endure more potently in my mind.  I directly credit this film and a slew of other Esther Williams’ films for instilling in me a love for swimming as well as photographing swimming (something I only got to do once in Boy+Girl, Girl+Boy).

Bathing Beauty is concerned, as so many old Hollywood comedy-musicals are, with the battle of the sexes.  Yet Red Skelton isn’t exactly the manifestation of macho idealism.  And Esther Williams comes across as tough, assertive, intellectual.  Psychologically it is a role reversal, with a focus on the physical of the sexes in Skelton’s comedy sketches.  This odd pastiche is probably why the film, intentionally or not, remains fresh even today for me.

But back when I was four years old and first becoming acquainted with Red and Esther what really got me was the music.  The songs still play my emotions today as effectively as they did then, to give you an idea of how much this film has endeared itself to me.  The Harry James numbers are especially enthralling, sometimes ironic, sometimes playful, but always shot with that trademark MGM dreaminess.

In 2012 when I was shooting a musical with Caroline Boyd (titled Michael’s Match; never released), I revisited Bathing Beauty for the first time in years.  It gave me two essential ideas which I used on my film.  The first I mentioned above, the psychological role reversal.  The second was to capture the numbers in as few shots as possible.  George Sidney does this better than any of the other MGM directors whose work I have seen (which is a lot, trust me).  His shot progression of Anne Miller’s first big number in Kiss Me Kate is a virtuoso exercise in cinematographic minimalism that is remarkably effective.

The-Strange-Woman-1946-1

The Strange Woman (1946)

Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward

I didn’t really immerse myself in the work of Edgar G. Ulmer till late in 2012 after reading Todd McCarthy’s indispensable The Kings Of The Bs.  This was the fourth film by Ulmer I saw, and I immediately fell in love with it.  Admittedly Bluebeard is more visually arresting, but Heddy Lamarr’s performance in The Strange Woman is simply staggering.  She is the epitome of sex-soaked camp enticing men to their doom.  George Sanders, cast against type, brings a sophistication unique unto himself to a role better suited to Edward Arnold.

Typically of Ulmer, he’s utilized his budget constraints on The Strange Woman to formulate a pseudo-expressionistic American frontier, parts Fritz Lang and parts Merian C. Cooper.  Yet, from a director’s perspective, the most inventive quality to The Strange Woman’s direction is how intimate the film feels without ever becoming claustrophobic.  More than any other Ulmer film The Strange Woman is overflowing with close-ups.  One scene in particular, when Sanders finally calls out Lamarr for what she is, features a close-up on Lamarr that is sustained just a beat too long which is devastatingly effective.  This moment in The Strange Woman inspired how I cut together the sequence where Jessica Mockrish murders Robin Friend-Stift in An Atrocious Woman.

coo3-1

Bill & Coo (1948)

Dir. Dean Riesner, cast: George Burton’s Birds

“What the fuck is this!?!” was Thomas Lampion’s first response to when I showed him Bill & Coo back in 2010 as Julie Lovely was born.  It seems to be the reaction most people have to this film.  On an intellectual level, I agree, “what is this?  It won an honorary Oscar?”  Still, it’s closer to my heart than I should probably admit.  

I don’t know when I saw it first, but I had to have been very young.  In 2004 I remember going to Movies Unlimited in the Great North East when they were selling off all of their VHS.  That’s when I saw a copy of Bill & Coo.  Looking at it’s cover (I still own this copy) I remembered it somehow.  Needless to say I bought it, along with To Sleep With Anger, The Cars That Ate Paris and Blank Generation (I got some looks at the register).  Once I was home I watched it.  It was like a flood gate had burst.  I had seen this weird bird movie before.  I was transported to a safe and loving place of innocence.  That hasn’t changed no matter how many viewings later.  But I still have no clue as to why?  Maybe I am one of those damn birds reincarnated?

11330266

Vengeance Valley (1951)

Dir. Richard Thorpe, cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru

“The Skipper” was how I knew Burt Lancaster as a kid.  His real name was unmanageable to a three year old.  He was just “The Skipper” because that’s what his crew of pirates with hearts of gold called him in The Crimson Pirate.  I watched so much Burt Lancaster when I was three or four (who’s kidding, I still watch about two Burt Lancaster films a month even now).  

Still, when I put this challenge before the regular contributors to this blog and we all started working on our lists I surprised myself.  The Crimson Pirate, as beloved as it is, did not stay in my head the way Lancaster’s quickie B-Western Vengeance Valley did.  Being famous in my family for my love of “The Skipper” while also being somewhat surprised by this revelation I started second guessing myself.  I can vividly remember the Saturday afternoon I first watched the chase scene where Lancaster pursues Robert Walker, but that isn’t the image that remains vital in my mind.

There’s a scene right after Joanne Dru gives birth to Robert Walker’s illegitimate child.  Lancaster arrives, before his brother Robert Walker, to see the newborn child.  Lancaster looks rugged, dressed for the cold, unshaven, his large frame towering over Joanne Dru.  There’s hardly any dialogue.  Lancaster removes his gloves and takes his nephew in his arms.  The stoic features of Lancaster’s face give way to a vulnerability that is utterly disarming.  Dru looks at him, a face full of hurt, ambiguous.  Then Walker appears in soft focus behind Lancaster and Dru, who are now so close that if not for the baby it would be a love scene.  Walker’s appearance throws off the composition, casting a threatening presence into the tender moment.  That is what has stuck with me.

large-screenshot1

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Dir. Douglas Sirk, cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead

I don’t believe this is Douglas Sirk’s best film.  Still, it’s my favorite.  It probably has something to do with my background in Catholicism (CCD every Tuesday night).  Films that address an affirmation of faith or a crisis of faith tend to affect me in unusual ways.  Magnificent Obsession is never explicit in what matter of faith Rock Hudson finds after killing Jane Wyman’s husband and blinding her, but from the music cues and Sirk’s camera placement which clearly recall DeMille’s Biblical epics it has to be some form of Christianity.  And with Douglas Sirk being Douglas Sirk he subtly scrutinizes and evaluates man’s relation to faith.  When I first saw this film I interpreted its message being something along the lines of “faith in a higher power is stronger than faith in a master”.  Though that sophomoric interpretation at that time is probably some sort of subconscious projection.  Honestly I always thought that Magnificent Obsession would make a good double feature with Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?

Empress_Yang_01

Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955)

Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, cast: Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Sô Yamamura

I was in ninth grade when I first saw this film.  It was late Spring, the second week in a row that my father, brother, and I all drove down to Movies Unlimited together.  The fruits of the previous trip yielded Bill & Coo and an assortment of other cult classics, but this trip was all about Japan.  This is when I first became familiar with New Yorker Video with whom I would have dealings with some nine years later working for my friend Amber at CIP.  New Yorker Video put out this series, Japanese Masters, that collected major works by Ozu, Oshima, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa all in beautifully letterboxed editions.  These were gorgeous VHS, I couldn’t believe I was getting so many amazing films so cheaply.  I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s van (a huge van that my brother and I often compared to the shuttles in Star Trek: The Next Generation) gazing over the titles I had purchased; Equinox Flower, Cruel Story Of Youth, Enjo, and of course Princess Yang Kwei Fei.

Strangely, I only watched Princess Yang Kwei Fei once early on a Sunday morning.  I never watched that VHS again.  But those images, those dreamlike pastel colored images remained etched into my mind’s eye for years.  There really was no reason to rewatch it when I was reliving it again at the most spontaneous of times daily.  So I gave it to my friend Josh.  

Yet, once I was working for Amber, I began to desire to see Princess Yang Kwei Fei again.  I thought it would be a great if somewhat unexpected representation of Mizoguchi for a program I was developing.  Nothing ever came of that.  Then three years later my collaborator Thomas got me really into Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor and the flames of desire were fanned again.  The spectre of what Princess Yang Kwei Fei had become obsessed me.  I had to see it again.

Finally, I ordered the Masters Of Cinema release a month or more back.  It was spectacular.  Mizoguchi weaves such a delicate fantasy out of such concise compositions and designs that the film transcends folklore and opera, achieving a symbiotic fusion of the two as flawless as a Mazarin stone.  Anyone invested in the lyricism of artifice, Kenneth Anger fans, fans of The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T., and appreciators of technicolor will find this film indispensable.

M4DDACR EC001

Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955)

Dir. Norman Foster, cast: Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conried

I have few vivid memories of my grandfather.  One of them is of going to a small carnival in the woods out near his home in Mt. Carmel.  I rode a wooden roller coaster with my dad that day which scarred me for life.  But I also got my first and only coonskin cap.

I had just discovered Davy Crockett, I watched this film so many times back then.  I read everything that was at the Herbert Hoover Elementary School library on the man and even gave a presentation in second grade as Davy Crockett relating the life of Davy Crockett.  Davy Crockett meant so much to me.  I wanted to be like him.  I wanted to end conflicts with good ole common sense, grin down bears, and give my life for something I believed in (not America, more like an endangered species such as Bison or for Captain Kirk)!  Not much has changed.

It’s so rare to find a film for children that actually follows a child’s logic in terms of narrative structure.  And when Davy Crockett can’t do that during the original episode breaks, there is an informative and catchy song ripe with puns.  It is easy to resent or harbor hostility for the Disney Corporation with all of the shady things they do.  Still, now and then, something a little more artful, meaningful can occur.

The day Fess Parker died when I was entering my Junior year of college was extraordinarily tough.  He had never been the “cinematic best friend” that Burt Lancaster was, but I still felt somehow close to him.  So my dear friend Lauren and I shared a bottle of Fess Parker wine and watched Davy Crockett.  I memorialized Fess Parker and Davy Crockett further a few months later when I made a video on the shift of American morality post-WWII and took all of my images from Davy Crockett (the audio came from all over the place).  My teacher, Pete Rose, said my piece, titled Davy Crockett & The Fall Of The American Dream, was “obsessive”.  

redballoon

The Red Balloon (1956)

Dir. Albert Lamorisse, cast: Pascal Lamorisse

When you are a little boy like I was when I saw The Red Balloon for the first time it has an indescribable effect on you.  Sure a film like Davy Crockett can instill a child with some moral values just as The Crimson Pirate can ignite one’s sense of adventure, but The Red Balloon poses a question that only a child might ask.  “What makes make-believe make-believe?”

Lamorisse is not interested in an answer.  The Red Balloon simply asks its audience to accept, to feel without thinking.  It isn’t one of those obnoxious children’s films that pretends to do that with talking animals or a superficial visual perfection.  The streets in The Red Balloon are real streets.  The faces of the people on those streets are just like anywhere in the world.  The only fantastic element to the film is the balloon.  It is in this contrast that the film finds its success.

It’s difficult for me to discuss the aesthetic virtues of The Red Balloon.  It’s a film that is just too close to me.  When I turned twenty-five a few years ago and my mother gave me the Janus Films restoration of The Red Balloon on DVD I’m sure she didn’t think I was grateful.  I just don’t have the words to really talk about this film.  Of all of the films on this list, this one has been the most important to me.  

Marnie pic 1

Marnie (1964)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, cast: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel

Personally I find that this film conveys Hitchcock the person more clearly than any of the master’s films.  His chauvinism has been well documented by his countless biographers just as critics have so often cited his voyeurism and his fetishization of blonde haired women.  All those things are found in ample abundance in Marnie.  Though in the instance of Marnie these components become  a frenzied whirlwind of a nightmare equal parts Freudian and, in terms of design, heavily indebted to the films of Fritz Lang, a one-time mentor to Hitchcock early in the latter’s career.

Marnie is as disturbing as it is irresistible, the current of sadism wraps the viewer up in a setting as familiar as it is subversive.  The Birds prepared audiences for the spectacle of Tippi Hedren in jeopardy and pain, Dr. No established Sean Connery as a womanizing masculine ideal of heterosexual impulses bordering on the violent, but Marnie delivers both in extremes.  Gradually, over the course of the film, both attributes of these celebrity signifiers are amplified, culminating in the most degrading exploitation of someone with PTSD that I have ever seen in film.

Oddly, it is the familiarity of these celebrity players and what they signify within a narrative context that enables the viewer to invest in the film.  For a filmmaker that is no easy accomplishment and testifies to Hitchcock’s powers as a director.  Add to that the sensual set design, the sharp tweed suits, the lure of the American upper class, and the sexuality of Tippi Hedren and the film becomes almost as enjoyable as North By Northwest.  

When I first became acquainted with Marnie I had been reading Norman Mailer’s essays collected in Existential Errands.  Mailer, for a large part of this anthology, sought to tangle with the relationship between the binary sexes in the context of feminism and the sexual revolution during the sixties.  The rape that opens Mailer’s An American Dream serves as a precursor to his perspective of “conservative” masculinity as outlined in Existential Errands.  Needless to say, this brand of “manliness” shared by the protagonist of An American Dream and the authorship of Alfred Hitchcock provide a reflection of masculine identity at a major shift in sexual politics within American society.

Picture 10

Flesh (1968)

dir. Paul Morrissey, cast: Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Patti D’Arbanville

Kenny used to manage TLA video back before it shut its doors forever in 2010.  In 2006 he held onto copies of Flesh, Trash and Heat for me, for about two weeks, till I could purchase them.  The Image DVD release of Paul Morrissey’s films was such a big deal for me.  I had wanted to see these films ever since I had gotten Andy Warhol’s Bad a couple of years before.   I love all of Paul Morrissey’s oddball films, but Flesh in particular.  At one point I was so enamored of Joe Dallesandro in this film that I painted three portraits of him, one in color, two in black and white.

Flesh, much like Trash, isn’t a film where narrative is particularly important.  The films Morrissey made before relocating to Europe in the mid-seventies are characterized by their emphasis on interactions in the form of brief encounters.  As Joe hustles his way from client to client in episodic form each interaction becomes a piece in a larger tableaux.  The overall achievement of the film is that, in this loose form, it still manages to say so much about how people not only relate to one another but also accomplishes a comic critique of American life in 1968.

When I had the chance to speak with Paul Morrissey at length about his career in 2012 I was surprised that he didn’t seem to realize the extent to which his films still matter to so many young people today.  The free spirit and subversive sexuality of Women In Revolt and Flesh in particular represent some of the few truly articulate commentaries on non-binary sexual relations and kink lifestyles.  Though, I suppose, it would be nice if these films were indeed more popular than they already are.

sonmonkey

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Dir. Werner Herzog, cast: Helmut Döring, Gisela Hertwig, Gerhard Maerz

This is another of those films I purchased on a trip to Movies Unlimited.  It swept through my consciousness again and again all through the summer of 2003 after I first saw it.  I credit it with sparking some of the more cruel images that appear in my first films shot on VHS.  There are few films as cruel as Even Dwarfs Started Small.  The excess of its cruelty, its absurdity, its sheer volume often give way to comedy, which is perhaps why this is still one of the least popular of Werner Herzog’s films.

I have heard Even Dwarfs Started Small compared to Jodorowsky’s El Topo, though I find all they really have in common is their multitude of dwarfs.  Herzog’s film, as with much of New German Cinema, is a distinctly German in its execution of allegory.  The notion of having a dozen psychotic dwarfs stand-in for the whole of society in an anti-fascist tale is very much in line with a German’s sense of humor.  To go further, the degree of artifice it conveyed by performance and framing in Herzog’s film recalled Brecht.  

Now imagine the effect all of this must have had on me as a teenager.  It was completely inspiring.  I clearly remember showing some of Even Dwarfs Started Small to my friend Dan and can recall how it inspired him as well.  Then, some years later, I can remember my one girlfriend’s reaction to the film, “How can you like this?”.  She was mortified by the chickens fighting and the blind dwarfs flailing their sticks.  I was watching it for a paper I was writing for class while she was working on her own paper concerning Madame Bovary.  A couple of strange kids I suppose.

vlcsnap-485254

Husbands (1970)

Dir. John Cassavetes, cast: Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes

For a long time this film was nearly impossible to see.  John Cassavetes is my favorite filmmaker and for a long while this title eluded me.  My friend Dan had a bootleg of which I was insanely envious, largely due to the fact that it came with the BBC documentary on the production of the film.  Then in my sophomore year of college I was able to persuade my friend Jennifer to rent a VHS of Husbands from TLA video.  I quickly made a DVD copy of that VHS.

Immediately it surpassed all of Cassavetes’ other films I had seen to that point (which was all of them except Love Streams, which Jennifer kindly rented for me the following week).  It’s not as emotional as A Woman Under The Influence or as poignant and timeless as Love Streams, yet Husbands spoke to me in a very specific and personal way.

Unlike Cassavetes’ other films Husbands is focused on friendship, the very nature of that relationship, as opposed to romantic, sexual, or career oriented relationships.  To put an even finer point on it, Husbands is about the friendship between men, linking it thematicly with Elaine May’s masterpiece Mikey & Nicky (in which John Cassavetes and Peter Falk also star).  The theme of friendship amongst men is so very often relegated to the War and Western genre films that seeing a straight contemporary narrative with such a focus executed in Cassavetes’ brutally honest realist style is a revelation.  So many filmmakers would have opted to make every character redemptive within the narrative, but not Cassavetes.  Like all of his works Husbands is about truth.

To attempt a comparison, the literary equivalent of a John Cassavetes’ film, Husbands in particular, I believe would be the works of Richard Hugo.  Hugo and Cassavetes both seek to reveal the truth of their own inner emotional lives tirelessly.  The truths they find often being so undesirable that their work, be it a poem in Hugo’s case or a film in Cassavetes’, is often interpreted as controversial at best and chauvinistic at worst.  Hence the debate that Kathleen Hanna articulated so well in her Le Tigre song What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes; “genius or chauvinist”?

6ae4e2f11

The American Dreamer (1971)

dir. Lawrence Schiller & L.M. Kit Carson, cast: Dennis Hopper, Lois Ursone,

My copy of this film was procured from a gentleman out in Colorado in 2008 by mailing him a check for thirty dollars with a slip of paper attached with the titles I desired written inside.  I requested The American Dreamer, My Hustler, and The Connection.  All three arrived roughly a month later in the mail; three DVDs of 16mm prints.  It was an unorthodox transaction, but at the time none of these films could be found in any other way and certainly not in their entirety.  My friend Dan had turned me on to this reclusive cinephile gentleman when he began tracking down and collecting obscure films as well.  

At the time I was just becoming aware of L.M. Kit Carson’s work, which is as eclectic as it is fascinating; I have nothing but admiration where Kit is concerned.  But in that moment it was Lawrence Schiller who fascinated me more.  I knew of Schiller from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  Schiller researched that book and packaged the project for Mailer, as he did with Mailer’s Marilyn (Schiller also directed the film of The Executioner’s Song as scripted by Norman Mailer).  What was really chilling was that the project that was eventually published as Marilyn got its start because Schiller was the last photographer to do a photo session with Monroe before she died (all of this celebrity fetishization and morbidity definitely informs The American Dreamer).

The American Dreamer is part documentary and part performance piece, but it is wholly hypnotic.  The film focuses on Hopper at his home in Taos New Mexico where he is completing post-production on his film The Last Movie in 1971.  And Dennis Hopper has never played Dennis Hopper better than this.  Anyone fascinated with 1970s culture is sure to revel in this crackpot film which has more to say about the “New Hollywood” than Hopper’s own masterpiece The Last Movie (a film which almost made this list).  Hearing Hopper espouse on subjects such as why he is really a lesbian, Orson Welles, and burning all of his possessions is the closest most people should get to the kind of serious drug abuse Hopper was indulging in at the time.

In 2011 when Thomas was staying with me, sometime between watching Bill & Coo and The Jolson Story, we watched The American Dreamer.  We quickly became obsessed with the Hello People song Pass Me By used in the film.  In fact, I believe we were singing it in a pool one night and, if memory serves, Lertch might also have been there.

agonya_slider

Agoniya (1975)

dir. Elem Klimov, cast: Aleksey Petrenko, Anatoliy Romashin, Velta Line

There is a surprising lack of literature in English on Elem Klimov.  His films are neither the fantasies of Tarkovsky nor the character portraits of his wife Larisa Shepitko’s films, but meet somewhere elusive in the middle.  Much of Bela Tarr’s latter works remind me of Klimov’s Come & See in their expert blocking and fluid long takes.  Come & See is a masterpiece, one of the greatest films I have ever seen, but not my favorite.  Agoniya, the first of Klimov’s films I ever saw, tells the story of Rasputin and his power over the last Tsar of Russia; this is my favorite.

A series of experiences as a child sparked a fascination with Russian history which was only encouraged further by my mother.  In fact Agoniya was a Christmas present from her and my father.  Unlike many other Russian films I have seen on the history of their national identity, Agoniya beautifully slips from “fantastique” expressionism to an almost Peter Watkins-esque factual account.  The overall experience is thusly as informative as it is overwhelming to the senses.

I would now like to clarify that it was not Don Bluth’s Anastasia that introduced me to Rasputin, nor was it Hammer Horror with their free Rasputin Beards!  In fact it was Richard Boleslavsky’s Rasputin & The Empress, released in 1932 and starring John, Ethel, and of course Lionel Barrymore at his best (post Tod Browning’s West Of Zanzibar) as Rasputin.  I rented this film from the library as a little kid, probably when I had run out of new Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes mysteries to watch.  Anyway, it was my love of Russian history and of Rasputin that probably prompted my parents to turn me onto Klimov’s beautiful film, and I’m glad they did.

Berlin-Alexanderplatz-c-Global-Screen

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, cast: Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made dramatic films that convey more emotional desperation and philosophical nihilism than any other filmmaker and this is his Magnum Opus.  My relationship with this film is one of obsession.  Despite its running time of over twelve hours I must have seen it at least six or seven times.  Recently I showed three excerpts to my students who were stupefied by this film’s brilliance.  I think Jonathan Rosenbaum has summed up Fassbinder’s legacy best when he said that Fassbinder’s films had become “ever fresher” with the passing of time.  The reaction of my students clearly supports this thesis.

I could easily write about Berlin Alexanderplatz again here.  Yet, having already written about this film roughly three times for this blog, I think that I will just simply recommend that if you want to know more, please just search this site for either the film’s title or its director.  Thanks.

91Ru9OwSfZL._SL1500_

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

dir. Nagisa Oshima, cast: David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti

Guilt and regret are two emotions that I have personally always found overwhelming, primarily because they are responsible for so much of my character.  It is those two emotions that are at the heart of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence uses these two emotional experiences to explore the nature of war; the way war distorts and perverts the mind and the soul, how violent conditions can propel, strengthen and shatter human beings.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is by no means a violent film.  It often comes off as placid till an eruption occurs.

Nagisa Oshima is, in my mind, one of the most important filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, at least equal to Godard.  And given the stylization of so many of his films it is always surprising to me how fragile Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence feels.  Oshima’s delicately lit close-ups, his slow panoramas through the prison compound, the gentility of movement in his tracking shots all work in coordination to convey an existence that is hardly truly there, always on the brink of collapsing.  

As if to accentuate Oshima’s visual dialect in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, David Bowie was cast as Major Jack Celliers, the primary point of contention between the British POWs and their Japanese captors.  As with Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie utilizes his inherent alien qualities to create a distance between himself and his fellow characters in the film.  Though in this instance that “outsider” quality is not indicative of a literal other-worldliness, but rather of a character so bereaved with guilt that he simply cannot emote as other people do.

The greatest strength of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is that it never addresses these concepts head-on.  The film is ambiguous.  It conveys all of these emotions with the faintest clues as to their cause and effect.  So one can imagine what an intense experience this was for me in 7th grade.  I had never been moved by a film in such a way before.  I believe it is also responsible for solidifying my love of David Bowie.

maxresdefault

Rendez-vous (1985)

dir. André Téchiné, cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Wadeck Stanczak

I bought this film on DVD six years ago when I was at the Princeton Record exchange with my friend Josh.  There were three reasons for my purchase.  The first is that Josh and I both love the Princeton Record Exchange.  But being that we only get out there every couple of months and they are an independent business one is likely to feel terribly guilty if one does not buy something.  The second reason is that I had always wanted to see an André Téchiné film.  I had read about him and read about him in numerous books at the UArts library but had not seen one of his films (I’ve seen ten of them now and they are all excellent).  The final motivating factor was that Rendez-vous stars Juliette Binoche.  Binoche’s performances are always revealing and captivating, I will at least see any of the films she is in once because it is absolutely worth it.

Rendez-vous is relatively early in both Juliette Binoche and Téchiné’s careers.  Binoche had yet to develop the kind of kinetic energy she would while working with Leos Carax (another favorite filmmaker of mine) while Téchiné is in transition between the more formal approaches exhibited in his films The Bronte Sisters and Hotel America and the visual stylization and cinematic improvisation of I Don’t Kiss.  I could go on and on about the aesthetics of Rendez-vous but I won’t since I have written about this film three times already for this very blog!  What I am willing to elaborate on is how Rendez-vous taught me a very valuable lesson.  

Unlike most reflexive narrative films (Jean-Luc Godard is a good example of such a filmmaker), Rendez-vous is less concerned with its commentaries on the cinema and more concerned with the lives and world of its characters.  This gives the film a density, a sophistication.  The revelations concerning the very notions of cinematic performance within the film are tucked beneath the surface of the drama.  This opens Rendez-vous up for multiple viewings very easily.  For the combinations of dramatically diegetic and the abstract reflexive components of the film are layered so densely that the dialogue they create feels different during any and every viewing.

I attempted this a little bit myself on Bitches, then I made this aesthetic the stylistic crux of A Debauched Little Rogue without too much success.  I eventually accomplished maybe 15% of what Téchiné had done aesthetically in Rendez-vous on The Blasphemy Of Owen Barnes, but I am still going to try again some day.  As a filmmaker there is nothing more delightful than a film that pushes and shoves your own aesthetic possibilities and understandings, even if it does become endlessly frustrating.

melo-1986-05-g

Mélo (1986)

dir. Alain Resnais, cast: Fanny Ardant, André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi

In many ways Mélo feels like Resnais’ homage to Josef von Sternberg.  Josef von Sternberg’s films are noted for their theatricality, expressionist lighting, romantic melodrama and, above all, their sensuality.  Nicolas Roeg is the only filmmaker I can think of who rivals von Sternberg’s cinema for sensuality.  When one thinks of Resnais’ films, one does not usually associate them with any of these elements.  Mélo, however, is ripe with tragedy, romance, theatricality, and sensuality.  In many respects Mélo may be Resnais’ best film because, not only is it a master class in cinematic technique, it is brimming over with authentic human emotion.

Mélo exists in another world, a Paris exclusive to the cinema, found in the works of Minnelli, Carné, and Demy.  This is a world of Romanticism.   Mélo functions as a fairytale for adults, extending Life Is A Bed Of Roses that much further conceptually.  It warns of love pursued at all costs, of love given beyond selflessness, and it does so in a space of fantasy so closely tied with a sense of secure escapism in its audience’s mind that as Mélo descends its characters further and further to their fates the emotional impact is quadrupled.  

r6ow

The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

dir. Hal Hartley, cast: Adrienne Shelly, Robert John Burke, Chris Cooke

When Hal Hartley first emerged on the American Independent Film scene with The Unbelievable Truth it was like nothing else.  The fusion of the literate with the plastic, his long takes, the off-beat blocking, and his own signature style soundtracks stood out from the pack, announcing a new and wholly unique voice in American cinema.

When I discuss low-budget and independent filmmaking with my students I assign them an interview with Hartley that was originally published in Sight & Sound to read; they all end up loving him if not his films.  When we work with blocking I often screen a scene from The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Surviving Desire, one scene apiece.  Again, most of the students fall in love with his style.  Which is no surprise since his influence can be felt in both Noah Baumbach’s and Wes Anderson’s films.

I saw No Such Thing before I saw The Unbelievable Truth.  Dan lent me his copy of The Unbelievable Truth in the summer of 2011 so I came into Hartley’s early films rather late.  The impact of this film on my own work is rather considerable and certainly more obvious on the shorts I made back in the summer of 2011.  I would recommend that anyone interested in making a film on their own should invest some time in studying Hartley’s works.

006

Beyond The Clouds (1995)

dir. Michelangelo Antonioni & Wim Wenders, cast: Chiara Caselli, Irène Jacob, Vincent Perez

In my adolescence I had acne, I was at least 8” taller than any other kid my age and I had the face of someone four years older than I actually was.  I was an outcast, just like everyone else.  That’s how I felt when I saw Beyond The Clouds.  I had seen The American Friend so I knew who Wim Wenders was but I had not seen any of Antonioni’s films.

What struck me was how Beyond The Clouds so delicately recreated so many emotions, both familiar and unfamiliar.  So seamlessly do these narratives intwine and accent one another that one might miss the dialogue occurring between each separate vignette.  This was Antonioni’s last film and I think he finally said everything he ever wanted to say about how our contemporary existential quandary subverts human romantic impulses.  He takes an existentialist’s view on questions like “is there just one special person for all of us?”, “is love eternal?”, “would things be different if I had told her how I felt?”; that answer is always “no”.  And yet, despite these cold realizations each character still remains somewhat hopeful.  The hope that the Romantic could be the truth is what sustains, that is what Beyond The Clouds is about.

When I was fourteen or fifteen that meant something to me, it sustained me I suppose, in a way.  Today it represents a bittersweet truth.  Having been in some relationships, having experienced the euphorias and the suffering life has to give that are just incomprehensible when you are twelve, I have to admit my perspective on Antonioni’s last film has changed.  You realize that the only way one can remain hopeful in the face of the existential machinations of our society and our relationships is to learn to live with regret.  Regret is what unites all of the narratives, all of the characters in Beyond The Clouds.

Afterward

Pandora's Box

When I first thought of having the Zimbo Films’ staff write about their “twenty favorite films” I was thinking that it would help demonstrate our collective aesthetic interests and sensibilities in preparation for fundraising for Thomas Lampion’s Julie Lovely.  The experience of actually writing this piece and reading Thomas’ contribution for the first time a month ago was one of both catharsis and renewal.  Renewal in the sense of rekindling a thought process surrounding the cinema that is more subjective than say the academic realm in which I often find myself and ground my own works as a filmmaker.  Though I honestly doubt that the casual reader will take away the same emotional responses as the authors of these posts will, I do hope that they, the readers, do find a renewed interest in avenues of cinematic expression that they may have though they out grew.

Lastly I would like to pay my respects to the films and filmmakers that did not make my final list.  The journey to the list you have just read was a long one; sometimes it was excruciating.  Different iterations of this list were born out of two motivating factors, mood and ego.  Regardless as to why the following films did not make the list in the end I believe that their inclusion here will serve as an appendix that will illuminate and accent the twenty films listed above.  Without further delay those films are Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009), Histoire de Marie et Julien (dir. Jacques Rivette, 2003), Pola X (dir. Leos Carax, 1999), Naked (dir. Mike Leigh, 1993), The Last Bolshevik (dir. Chris Marker, 1992), Wild At Heart (dir. David Lynch, 1990), Bad Timing (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1980), In A Year With 13 Moons (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978), Mikey & Nicky (dir. Elaine May, 1976), Der Tod der Maria Malibran (dir. Werner Schroeter, 1972), Goodbye, Columbus (dir. Larry Peerce, 1969), The Swimmer (dir. Frank Perry, 1968), Faces (dir. John Cassavetes, 1968), Reflections In A Golden Eye (dir. John Huston, 1967), Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor (dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1963), The Leopard (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (dir. Fritz Lang, 1959), The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (dir. Roy Rowland, 1953), Earth (dir. Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930), Pandora’s Box (dir. G.W. Pabst, 1929), and lastly The Dying Swan (dir. Evgeni Bauer, 1917).

by Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under lists

The 20 Films That Influenced My Life

When Robert Curry asked me to write an article chronicling twenty films that influenced me, I wondered how I’d even go about such a large and almost impossible seeming task. On a piece of paper, I quickly made a list of twenty films, that list was never revised and several of the titles even surprised me. I decided to arrange the list in a chronological order based on when I had seen the film and where that film belonged based on my memory of when I saw it, and what impression it left. Some films are less obscure than others, some films are so associated with a time and a place I can barely separate them. Some films I would even hesitate to call my very favorite or ones that I would watch again anytime soon. What makes a film effective is what makes it memorable, that’s what an eighties blockbuster and a Swedish black and white art film have in common. From childhood to adulthood these are the films who made me what I am today as a person a writer and an artist.  

 snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

This was not only my first film, but my first memory. While a part of me resents the Disney Corporation holding such a heavy copyright over my childhood, seeing it at the old Dollar Theater with my Grandmother at age four taught me what a film truly was and should be. Its images of good versus evil, the blurred lines of beauty and ugliness left quite an impression on me, particularly the image of the Beautiful Queen drinking her own poison to turn into a hideous crone to take revenge on the innocent Snow White. I have never had the heart to see the film again as an adult, my vision of it as a child is entirely too perfect and can’t compare, which is perhaps why it’s so special for me.

the-wizard-of-oz

  1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

While Snow White was my primer, The Wizard of Oz was my first serious gateway drug into film. Every obsession of mine has roots in Oz for me. Like many in a generation of little gay boys growing up in the nineties, the film’s transition from a beloved yearly television event to Video meant years of chaos and torture for my family, exasperated and annoyed by my constant viewing of the film like it were some ancient code I was trying to decipher, its influence rendering my father speechless when I promenaded down the stairs dressed as a starry eyed Judy Garland with red high heels.

Oz, for me and many, tapped deep into the psyche. It provided a myth that helped me cope with the everyday and subconsciously helped preserve my own individuality and self-worth against a background of trauma. For all that Dorothy and her friends believe are lacking, they learn they’ve had all along. It’s taken twenty seven years to understand what Dorothy meant when she tells Glinda that if she ever goes looking for her heart’s desire, ‘I’ll look no further than my own backyard’, but once you do well, that must mean you’re hooked as bad as I am.

maxresdefault

  1. The Shining (1980)

The first movie I was made to promise I wouldn’t tell my parents I’d seen. I remember the slight smell of marijuana, the giggly aura of babysitters and the VHS cover so old and frayed I could barely decipher the image of Jack Nicholson axing his iconic mug through the doorway. It was my first horror movie and still the only film that truly terrifies me to this day. Director Stanley Kubrick read Child Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment while researching his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Bettelheim ascertains that classic fairy tales are important to children’s development because they teach them to survive at all costs the injustices and confusion provided or rendered impossible to prevent by adults. While King’s novel focuses on a myriad of scenarios, in particular Jack Torrance’s alcoholism, Kubrick was wise to narrow the story in on Jack’s young son Danny, who must survive what, might be the vengeance of a paranormal hotel, but is most definitely the wrath of a father trying to murder his family in a psychopathic rage. Danny and his invisible, perhaps psychic friend ‘Tony’ is composites of a child navigating an adult world with a strong moral compass, and their example has helped me greatly.

poltergeist1982-3

  1. Poltergeist (1982)

When I think of a film that best encapsulates the aesthetic of my childhood, this one fits the bill. Perhaps because we lived so far away, or my parents own errant decorative choices to blame, it feels like my childhood was still surrounded by the look of the late seventies and early eighties, much like the house our yuppie family is trapped in once youngest daughter Carol-Ann is kidnapped by evil spirits by way of a television screen. When I see the sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking performances of Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nielson, I see my own mother and father. Most horror films, even ones with interesting enough premises, suffer from the utter lack of chemistry between actors with little to work with as far as any real or palpable drama is concerned. I think immediately of the scene where Mom and Dad sneak into their bedroom to smoke pot while the kids are asleep, and Mom tells a story about sleepwalking as a teenager. What horror movie at any time would think to evoke such loving, intricate details?

Hairspray_1001Pyxurz

  1. Hairspray (1988)

Like many, this was my first John Waters movie, I saw it in the late Nineties at a time where I was beginning to look through my family’s photo albums, in Hairspray I instantly saw the Sixties that my mother remembered, when Grandma had a beehive wig a mile high, where the next time you went to school you might get stuck in a race riot  and God, it sure was hard to get a white boy to take you to see James Brown on the other side of town. John Waters was the first director I became aware of who had his own persona through his films and interviews. Through him I learned a director could make a film and that within seconds of that movie, you could instantly recognize their vision, imagination and their philosophy.

John Waters’ couldn’t possibly have known that this film would not only be rated PG on its release, but that overtime it would induct him into the American Zeitgeist and make him a National Treasure in the process, thanks to a hit Broadway musical adaptation and a bloated Blockbuster remake with a disposable cast. While certainly without the edge or notoriety of his earlier films with Divine, in a way it is John Waters’ most radical film solely because of its popularity. To this day, it is still his most ambitious and personal film, tackling the heady and confusing early sixties of his beloved Baltimore head on, depicting everything from racism and classism, big hair and body issues as seen through the eyes of an ingenious main character, Tracey Turnblad, an overweight schoolgirl with a love for black music and bringing her racially segregated city together.

Picture 18

  1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

Undoubtedly, the Mother of all Art Films.  At age twelve, we lived in a seedy neighborhood, its sole perk being a glorious, grimy old video store run by a cantankerous French woman and her far nicer employee. This place became my first film school and this was where I primarily learned everything I know today. The place was stacked with bootleg video tapes containing everything from Russ Meyer nudie flicks to Eastern European musicals with untranslatable titles. This place was quite the contrast to the world of Disney Videos and Cable TV I’d been subjected to and Ingmar Bergman was a hell of a place to start. This was the first film I ever felt I picked to watch myself, and the first time I discovered a film could not only be art, but be as complex and mysterious as life itself. It showed to me the importance of evoking a time and place. Never had I seen a middle ages so dirty and plague ridden, so wild, that one could actually believe that Death itself would appear to challenge a Knight to a game of chess. From The Seventh Seal, I learned that a film could be more than one thing. While at its core, a dark and probing drama on human existence and the inevitability of death, it is also darkly comic and ribald in the case of Death calmly sawing down a tree with an unwilling mortal in its branches. Bergman paid the price for making dramatic, unrelenting films, and it is often forgotten how humorous and versatile his filmography truly is.

BEAUTY-AND-THE-BEAST2050

  1. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

One difficulty that often arises in the thousands of adaptions of fairy tales in film and television is the insatiable need to over-explain or in some cases, completely eliminate the unexplainable logic or disturbing elements of fairy-tales, Walt Disney being the main culprit. What keeps Jean Cocteau’s version so original and so fascinating to generations of audiences is its devotion to the original material, taking little liberty with Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont’s version of the story. Why does a Beast covet a rose? How could it throw a family into conflict? Cocteau doesn’t need to explain the logic of folklore, he merely follows suit and accentuates its inner poetry, asking us the audience of ‘…a little of this childlike simplicity to bring us luck.’  But this version of the tale reminds us that fairy tales at their inner core are never really child-like at all. Cocteau refuses to shy away from the violence and sexuality of fairy tales, showing us a Beast that even in the finest of clothes will not hesitate to devour a deer. When Beauty enters the domain of which she will stay in lieu of her father, her place in the Beast’s world is clearly a sexual one, one of rabbit fur beds that open by themselves, halls and rooms filled with lustful faces of stone, brawny human hands wielding candelabras in dark hallways. Beauty and the Beast is a filmic gift like no other, its influence extending to a myriad of film-makers from Jacques Demy to Spike Lee. This film is special to me because it shows the world of fairy tales that I grew up with, apart from the vapid cultural landscape of Disney, a sometimes depraved but always beautiful place filled with deep human truths and mystery.

039-the-night-of-the-hunter-theredlist

  1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter was the first film that made me weep. I wept for the child I was and the adult I had become. Its story expressed abstractly so many problems and anxieties of my own childhood. In almost mythic terms, The Night of the Hunter shows patterns, and cycles of abuse and trauma that occur in familial units anytime, anywhere and almost always going unspoken. Two children’s mother is seduced by a dark handsome preacher who happens to be a savage killer, convinced that the two children hold the secret to their dead father’s stash of stolen money. Perhaps what is so frightening about the film is its depiction of the decisive rift between adult and child that occurs, two parties helpless to understand each other. But perhaps what is so moving is the triumph of the children to overcome the monster so devilishly played by Robert Mitchum. Perhaps Lillian Gish sums it up best in the films ending as she gazes over a winter scene more ethereal than a snow globe, ‘Children are man at his strongest. They abide.’

Who knows how much talent was wasted when the great actor Charles Laughton died after directing his first and only film? It was pertinently clear that a persistent and unique visionary had emerged, influenced by such radical material as German Expressionist films and the work of D.W Griffith. In the puritanical mid-fifties, such influences went both unnoticed and unwelcome. What kind of film is The Night of the Hunter exactly? It’s poetic realism and stylized atmosphere doesn’t lend it to being considered a horror movie of its era, though its body count alone rivals The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It isn’t a children’s film but much if not all the narrative is seen through the eyes of children. Is it a fairy tale? Is it a drama? The Night of the Hunter is many things at once, and there is literally nothing like it.

princess mononoke san and moro mother wolf

  1. Princess Mononoke (1997)

When I think of a film made from a singular, uncompromising vision, I think of Princess Mononoke. If any one director can be called an auteur, it would be Hayao Miyazaki. This film in particular is now legendary for Miyazaki’s obsessive overseeing the 144,000 cels that consisted of the entire film, re-animating over 80,000 of the frames himself, an unheard of feat considering both the excessive cost and time known to traditionally create a hand drawn feature film. Miyazaki brings fourth questions that other animated films seldom ask. Can nature be replicated in drawings? Is there such a thing truly as a hero or a villain? When do good intentions grow bad?  While Miyazaki’s career far from peaked after this; Princess Mononoke carries both an edge and a message completely unlike his later films.

When I’ve grown uninspired or discouraged while creating comics, I tend to refer to Miyazaki as something of an old master in the way that other artists would study and emulate the paintings of Michelangelo or Da Vinci, and more times than not, I feel the need to just throw out the towel and give up when I’m confronted with the intense beauty and nuance that makes up this entire film.

Singin in the Rain fellas I feel like this is my lucky day

  1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

No other film encompasses such boundless joy for the medium of film and all of its possibilities. Singin’ in the Rain’s plot is in fact, about the making of movies, chronicling the various trials and errors of a fledgling movie studio and its frantic transition from silent pictures to talkies in the Golden Age of Hollywood. And no other film fills me with such happiness and optimism. People often tell me they loathe musicals, but almost every time I remind them of Singin’ in the Rain, their faces immediately change, ‘Oh no, that’s different.’ And it is different. It’s a musical not bound by the same lapses in logic or operatic fancy that turn off many a viewer from the genre. By its being about the making of musical films, it can break and re-make the rules at any time. A scene can break into song because they’re about to film a number, a scene from an entirely different film can start playing because someone is trying to pitch a producer a scene for a film within the film. A montage can appear and literally burn a hole through the celluloid, men can leap off of walls and dance through rain strewn streets because Hollywood in its heyday was  the center of the worlds imagination, anything could happen there.

ddf08d81e2f5

  1. 3 Women (1977)

With the exception of several good movies, an ingenious film challenges everything you think you know about the medium. It came at an impressionable time, my teenage years and I still find myself wondering about exactly what happened when Millie and Pinkie moved in together. Robert Altman taught me that there was more to a film than just a plot-line, but that characters and the world they live in can be story enough. Shelly Duvall, Sissy Spacek and the ever mysterious Janice Rule give some of the best performances ever put to celluloid. All three bring us characters imbued with such nuance and complexity that we feel we truly know them. What happens is a purely organic experience that had virtually no real screenplay but scenes consisting of ideas where both actors and director worked together to create a universe of which these characters lived, breathed and became a part of the mystery, though no one actor or even the director himself quite understood what happened.

Only a director like Robert Altman could have made this film in such a fertile and confusing time as the Seventies, when the Hollywood Studio System was falling apart and giving way to a generation of new film-makers creating thought-provoking, genre defying films. It’s certainly a massive irony that 3 Women was released the same summer as George Lucas’ Star Wars, which would give way to a Hollywood Blockbuster Model the industry never recovered from, leaving small and abstract films like this in its wake.

picnic1

  1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

What exactly was it about the Seventies that brought us so many films that broke convention and refused to give us easy answers? While the crash of the Hollywood Studio System was one thing, the era also gave birth to several new industries as vast as Independent films, the mainstreaming of pornography and in some cases, national film markets that never even existed. Enter Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film that brought not only the Australian New Wave but director Peter Weir to the forefront of World Cinema.

It’s about the mysterious disappearance of three girls on a school trip to the ominous Hanging Rock one sunny afternoon in 1900 and the aftermath that follows suit, leading only to more questions. What gives it both such a dream like quality and a permanent sense of dread are the events depiction as some distant, collective memory. The ethereal Picnic scene seems almost to be etched in gold, a permanent but objective place in time that cannot be penetrated or interrupted. The image of the illusive Miranda is a reminder to all of us how fleeting and beautiful youth truly is, a specter of times past and never regained.

screen-shot-2015-05-27-at-9-57-03-pm

  1. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

It’s the Gone with the Wind of cult films, a cult epic even. A bold example of the Sixties Polish New Wave, a beloved early Midnight Movie in Europe and the United States, a film treasured by fans ranging from Martin Scorsese to Jerry Garcia who both paid to have the film not only restored but re-edited to its original length. No other film lives so entirely by its own rules, truly feeling like a movie from another universe, beating later auteurs like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam by literal light years in its nods to German Expressionism to its flights of flabbergasting absurdity.  To explain its plot would seem both impossible and pointless. It opens with the complexity of a Russian nesting doll spanning centuries as vast as the Napoleonic Wars to the Spanish Inquisition. We encounter Mystics, Quacks, Demons, Gypsies, Priests, Ghosts, Buffoons and Knights, but all seems to evolve around a mysterious book of which they all may or may not be a part of its contents. It would be impossible to watch the same movie each time, each viewing illuminates an aspect of the plot I’d never thought of before, some new and illusive detail you can barely decipher by the sheer overwhelm of beauty and surrealism in each frame.

c9113-3

  1. An Angel at my Table (1990)

By the time I reached twenty one, I’d suffered a nervous breakdown that took me out of college, out of my home and into a situation I felt there was no way out of. When no doctor or person could give me solace or hope, I turned to film, to literature, to art for others who had endured the immense pain and fear I felt being alive. Janet Frame’s story appeared to me through this beautiful film and her own writing. I felt I’d found a good friend when I didn’t have one, and hope for myself.

An Angel at my Table is an adaptation of three autobiographies by New Zealand author Janet Frame, sprawling from childhood to adulthood with a seemingly effortless ease by Director Jane Campion, who finds poetic meaning and purpose in virtually every frame of its surprising 160 minutes. Janet Frame was hospitalized in an insane asylum repeatedly throughout the Fifties, enduring over two-hundred rounds of electro-convulsive therapy and was saved from a lobotomy when it was discovered her collection of short stories had won a literary prize. Overtime, Janet finds the confidence and recognition she deserves because writing was her only salvation. Besides eliminating Shock Treatments and Insane Asylums as the norm, not much has changed in our culture as to how mental illness is recognized and treated by doctors and society at large. There is much to learn and love from this film, it conveys not only a beautiful and tender portrait of an artist but tells us truths about our society, and ourselves.

2jIk8F9

  1. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

One of the few foreign films that played on mainstream Cable Television throughout the Nineties State-side, a film that’s special to me because it’s one of the few films I know my parents watched together and enjoyed. This was unusual since neither of them were even remotely fans of foreign film, let alone movies. I have no idea why they enjoyed it but I know I certainly did.

Sometime in Twenties China, teenaged Sònglián’s father has left her family bankrupt, deciding to marry into a wealthy family becoming one of four wives. Soon she discovers she has married into a bitter rivalry between all three wives, down to even her servants, all thanks to a philandering, abusive husband who quickly becomes her captor. She realizes she is unable to stand the rigid, exploitative life of a concubine and quickly begins to become a part of the house’s diabolical game of secrets, deceit and eventually murder. Zhang Yimou was one of the first champions of the Chinese New Wave, while the script was approved by the Chinese Government, the film was quickly banned when seen as the bold, feminist interpretation of China’s problematic past that it was. Politics aside, it is one of the best and most inventive uses of color in a Drama film. Yimou and his art director devised a color scheme that becomes a central part of the drama, each character and room is imbued with certain colors to define their psychological traits and their part of the tense, tightly plotted story. When Sònglián is given her room, it is aglow with red lanterns, treated to her favorite foods and foot massages, a perk that quickly goes away once her duties as a concubine become disturbingly clear. When her husband discovers her indiscretions, the red lanterns are covered in black silk, snow begins to fall. The art direction of a film is just as integral if not sometimes interchangeable from a script, a visual alone can tell the story or imbue the meaning of a film with something entirely different altogether. Not only do I remember well this tense, haunting story but it is synonymous with the atmosphere and its imagery.

DEVILS, THE

  1. The Devils (1971)

One of the most criminally underappreciated Directors in the recent Lovefest of Sixties and Seventies Cinema is Ken Russell. In his time, he was the most controversial Director working in the U.K. Not only that, his films made big money overseas, important for a then struggling British film market floating on Ealing Studio fare, Kitchen Sink Dramas and Hammer Horror flicks. Ken Russell wasn’t serious, he was at turns radical, flamboyant, controversial, offensive, thought provoking and sometimes downright pornographic. The Devils is to this day, one of the most controversial films ever made, and one of the few cult films that has never lost its notoriety or edge, perhaps because Warner Bros. has never been keen to release it uncut, or in any format.

Based on Aldous Huxley’s account The Devils of Loudon, a small town in Seventeenth Century France is taken siege by religious hysteria when town priest Urbain Grandier is accused of witchcraft by the hunchbacked Mother Abbess leading a convent of frenzied nuns, played brilliantly by a young Vanessa Redgrave. Ken Russell ingeniously turns this historical account into not a vision of the past, but of both past and present with sets influenced by everything from Hieronymus Bosch to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, designed by a young Derek Jarman no less. What appears is a bold, frenzied account of religious mania, paranoia, repressed sexuality and angst that is at turns frightening, hilarious and effectively dramatic. The Devils is an experience entirely by itself, a both brilliant and violent spectacle.

the-life-of-oharu

  1. The Life of Oharu (1954)

When many think of the titans of Japanese Cinema and their effect on the world landscape, one would not be blamed if they thought immediately of Akira Kurosawa or even Yasujirō Ozu. Perhaps it’s a shame that Kenji Mizoguchi has a tendency to get lost in the wash. Though he made Samurai epics like Kurosawa and small modern-day dramas like Ozu, it was his old fashioned adaptations of classic Japanese Literature and folklore that gave him international acclaim. What Mizoguchi has, and what Kurosawa and Ozu both somewhat lack, is a very real empathy for his characters and the society of which they are born, and often mistreated, in particular women. It is said that Mizoguchi felt a great debt and empathy for women because his older sister was sold into Geisha-dom by their bankrupt father; it was apparently she who arranged with her clients in the freshly starting Japanese film industry of the Twenties to get Mizoguchi’s foot in the door.

The Life of Oharu is a sprawling epic tragedy set in the time of the Floating World, beginning with a haggard old woman who is asked by the other prostitutes who roam the dark streets to tell the story of her life, and what a life she has. After her family is denounced thanks to her affair with a page-boy, Oharu manages to bare the emperor a son but is banished again. She drifts from one misfortune after another, from becoming a Courtesan thanks to her bankrupt father, becoming a widow overnight, a denounced nun, and ultimately a prostitute, never giving up hope that one day she will see her son.  Mizoguchi manages to make the film both simple and complex. Simple in that he tells the story so straightforwardly, with a sense of honesty and morality which is unique for any film-maker of any time.  Kinuyo Tanaka gives a spellbinding, trans-formative performance playing a teenager, to an elderly woman without hesitating a beat. I have seen the film only once, but have never forgotten it, the sign that it works.

tumblr_o0whyb3g0s1ttz2sho2_1280

  1. Scorpio Rising (1963)

It wasn’t too long ago that seeing a movie could put you in jail. Maybe that’s the true power of Kenneth Anger’s gay magnum opus and the jewel of Queer Cinema, Scorpio Rising. When the film premiered in California, the film was denounced and the print seized, soon becoming a case that went all the way to Supreme Court, helping become one of the many cases for Freedom of Speech throughout the Fifties and Sixties. Scorpio Rising is a devoutly experimental film with no plot or dialogue, it is a host of images that helped establish and cement a Gay/Queer visual language and rhetoric. Its parade of fetishized pin-up boys fixing motorcycles, clips of Jesus from old educational films, genitalia shots and clips from Sunday Funnies is a mesmerizing tapestry of subculture when that really meant something. Kenneth Anger is finally getting credit for being the first Director to effectively use pop music as a part of film soundtracks, an influence to everyone from John Waters to Martin Scorsese.

jackie-brown-11

  1. Jackie Brown (1997)

Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, I pick this film because it encapsulates what I feel is the greatest performance by an actress of all time, the legendary Pam Grier. She was as enduring an actress and bombshell as Marilyn Monroe, except she could whoop some serious ass. In her heyday as the undisputed Queen of Blaxploitation Flicks, she was just as popular as Bruce Lee and tougher than Charles Bronson. Jackie Brown picks up where the Pam Grier mythos left off, now she’s an air stewardess involved in small-time drug trafficking, busted by the feds and on her big-time drug boss’s death list as a possible informant. Jackie devises a Swiss watch plan to get her revenge and her hands on a heist that could make her finally hit the big time. Pam Grier gives a heartbreaking, tough performance as an older woman with nothing left to lose. How on earth was she not even nominated for an Academy Award or offered five starring roles that year? It’s a film that would literally never exist without her presence. Underrated is the fact that this was such an important film for Tarantino, fresh off the heels of the game changing Pulp Fiction, shocking the film world with the fact that yes, he could make a brilliant, restrained character piece using little of the excessive violence his last two films made him legendary for. Tarantino made one of the last great character pieces in the style of many a Seventies classic, while finding relevance and currency in the shifting Nineties.

goodfellas-robert-deniro-joe-pesci-liotta

  1. Goodfellas (1990)

Back when I had television, this was one of maybe two movies that I would stop everything I was doing to watch. Though my list wouldn’t show it, I adore a good mob movie. While I’ve sat through maybe three or four dutiful viewings of Coppola’s The Godfather I and II, it pales in comparison when I think of what to me is the most wildly entertaining, enthralling crime movie ever made. ‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster’ begins Henry Hill, big-time mobster who with the Lucchese Crime Family helped manage one of the biggest bank heists of all time but that’s not all. He did jail-time, became a big time drug dealer, an FBI informant and ultimately was thrust into the Witness Protection Program. Scorsese directs it’s almost two and a half hours at a lightning pace that never stops, borrowing everything from the French New Wave to Donovan’s pop opus Atlantis. Goodfellas proves that main characters can still be engaging but at turns mostly despicable, even homicidal but they are never not interesting or unrelatable. Whether they’re stabbing a guy in the back of a car trunk or throwing bags of coke down the toilet, a part of you understands these peoples own version and expectations of the ever shifting American Dream.

by Thomas Lampion

Leave a comment

Filed under lists

A Dog Unarmed

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954)

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954)

When one thinks of the American West one may recall the vistas of John Ford, prints by Mort Künstler, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the music of Ennio Morricone, or even perhaps Tom Mix, though that seems somewhat doubtful today.  The West, with its legendary gunfighters, its promise of Western expansion, and the advent of railways that would unite the country have all worked together to solidify its myth in the consciousness of nearly every American.  The West provides such a rich mythology that, within the cinema, it has become the single most American of film genres.  It’s potential and versatility has even prompted filmmakers from without the United States to make films of the West.  Just as American filmmakers embraced Arthurian legend and Roman history, so have the Europeans embraced the Western.

Being the most popular genre in this country one can find an almost inexhaustible resource of film criticism and analysis on the subject.  Critics have been debating the many forms the genre has taken over the years since its inception in the late 19th century.  Due to this over abundance I have seen fit to isolate and examine a few key films from the last century that represent an international understanding of the genre.  Placing these films for discussion by order of release will help map the evolution of the genre from B-Movie to blockbuster and beyond.  But in selecting these films I have opted to avoid titles and filmmakers alike who have become iconic within the genre.  Names such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, George Stevens, John Sturges, Richard Thorpe, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone will not be discussed at great length.  Likewise, filmmakers who have been widely written about in cinema circles, like Monte Hellman, Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray and Bud Boetticher will also not be discussed at great length.  As I stated before, the primary goal of this article is to examine films from around the world that have reinterpreted and expanded the genre beyond the parameters one commonly associated with Westerns today.

“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.”-Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930)

John Wayne in The Big Trail

Raoul Walsh is one of the big names in studio-era Westerns, often appearing alongside names such as John Ford and Howard Hawks in film journals.  And like them, Walsh’s life was disproportionate to the rest of existence as if he were a character in one of his own films.  Still, despite his fame and reputation, Walsh’s silent films about poverty and his early “talkies” go unrecognized by most.  This is likely due to the fact that these early films by the director do not come equipped with a reputation earned during their original release.  These films, including The Big Trail, were rediscovered and re-evaluated some thirty years or more after the fact.

Raoul Walsh brings to The Big Trail (1930) something never seen on the same scope again in any of his films, an epic sense of mise-en-scène.  Walsh’s ability to control as well as to construct shots with gigantic set pieces and a horde of extras comes as a by-product of his years working under D.W. Griffith.  Add to that the new technology he was able to apply to the picture, 70mm film, and this particular talent is made even more apparent.

Lucien Andriot’s cinematography also recalls Griffith’s silent epics with its use of light; smokey and faded.  The dreamy effect of the photography instills Walsh’s images with a Romanticism fitting the films narrative which, from today’s perspective, seems a bit contrived and overly familiar.  But it is the Romantically pastoral images of The Big Trail that set it far apart from other early sound Westerns.  In 1930 Westerns were predominantly a genre of low-budget “quickies” meant to fill out a day’s worth of programing at the theaters.  The Big Trail was a prestige picture with a momentous budget and considerable resources.  The failure of the film to find its audience seriously jeopardized the careers of not just Raoul Walsh, but also the film’s star, newcomer John Wayne.

What’s problematic today about viewing The Big Trail is just how much we, as an audience, take sound for granted.  In terms of sound design and even the manner in which particular characters talk, The Big Trail established the codified sound cues that are essential to the contemporary Western.  Tyrone Power Sr.’s performance as Red Flack in the film invented what has become the archetypal villain in “wagon train dramas”, most obviously referenced in Anthony Mann’s Bend In The River (1952) with Arthur Kennedy’s portrayal of Emerson Cole or Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992).  That The Big Trail was so hardly seen and yet so influential speaks to the uniqueness of Walsh’s talents.

Rancho Notorious

Arthur Kennedy & Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Cinemascope is not for men, but for snakes and funerals.”-Fritz Lang

Rancho Notorious (1952) is not unique in its inversion of the traditional female role in Westerns.  Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) accomplish this with more style and aptitude.  What Rancho Notorious has that makes it something unique during the height of the Westerns’ popularity in the United States is Fritz Lang.

Coming from years of working at Ufa as one of Germany’s most successful directing talents, Lang brings not just his experience, but weds that experience with his own sense of disenfranchisement that he was experiencing in America.  Lang’s own struggle to connect with American culture is in no film more apparent that Rancho Notorious.  Early in the film there is a montage in which Arthur Kennedy travels about looking for the man who killed his lover.  This montage resembles, in pace and content, those of M (1931) and Metropolis (1927).  Similarly, when Arthur Kennedy recognizes his lover’s broach on Marlene Dietrich in the scene where they first meet the lighting as well as the camera’s proximity to Kennedy recreate a number of similar shots of similar emotional content in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922).  The most striking sequence in the film in terms of technique occurs in the scene where Kennedy gets into a brawl at a barbershop.  This scene, unlike any other in Lang’s career to that point, features a roaming camera whose focus is the action.  That simple choice of camera work gives the scene a realism to its violence that is, even today, uncomfortable simply because it is not at all what one expects.  The fight from Rancho Notorious would recreate itself the following year though in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).

It’s in these distinctly expressionistic tactics cited above that the audience finds the sense of “other worldliness” in Rancho Notorious.  It is an unreality more violent, more sexual than one is accustomed to in Westerns of this time.  And it is through this phenomenon that discerning viewers may realize that the “other worldliness” of Rancho Notorious is, at least for Lang, representative of his view of the United States.

“…a movie about a one-woman all-fag cowboy town“-Andy Warhol

Lonesome Cowboys

Joe Dallesandro in Lonesome Cowboys

If the fifties represented a trend in subverting the Western genre by inverting the sexual politics of the day, enhancing the explicitness of the violence, and embracing the sexuality of the films’ characters, then the sixties simply pushed those elements out and beyond into the realm of camp.  And it is in this realm that Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) lives.

Like most of Warhol’s films at the time Lonesome Cowboys was co-directed by Paul Morrissey, who was bringing a degree of legitimacy to Warhol’s productions via his knowledge of classic Hollywood.  So it is little wonder that Lonesome Cowboys follows the conventions, with regards to its sexual politics, set forth in Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar.  Except Warhol’s cowboys are all gay, thus relegating the “one-woman” in town into the role of mother and incestuous lover.  The significance of this film beyond that has little to do with re-writing the conventions of the genre.  Instead Lonesome Cowboys significance derives from the simple fact that it is a Western shot in Arizona.  Up until this time “underground” filmmakers the likes of Warhol and Morrissey were restricted to making genre films for almost no money within the limits of the city in which they lived, New York.

Ironically it was the foul language and the vulgarity of the sexuality depicted in Lonesome Cowboys that isolated mainstream audiences while the more legitimate production value drove off the “underground” audience.  Even Jonas Mekas had nothing good to say about the film in his column at the Village Voice.  Without any audience, Lonesome Cowboys wandered into obscurity.  However, the film has become a little more important in recent years when Gregg Araki cited it as an influence, thus canonizing it as part of the early Queer Film movement.  As Mark Rappaport points out in his Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997) the old Hollywood Westerns are brimming with homoerotic innuendos.  Lonesome Cowboys then represents the first major film to make the inherent homoerotic qualities of the genre its primary concern.

In art there is only artifice“-Luc Moullet

A Girl Is A Gun

Rachel Kesterber in A Girl Is A Gun

 Luc Moullet remains one of the most neglected filmmakers of all time, and certainly of the French New Wave.  Like Jacques Rivette, his films are near to impossible to obtain in the United States.  All of this in spite of a significant critical re-evaluation by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and others.  Still, Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun (1971) is the most unique and thought-provoking film on this list.

A Girl Is A Gun follows the misadventures of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy The Kid.  Unlike most depictions of the famous gunslinger, Billy The Kid is depicted as a bumbling loser who, despite himself, manages to exact his revenge and steal the girlfriend of a man he has killed.  The narrative content of A Girl Is A Gun is completely vacant of the Romanticism that unifies most American Westerns.  Even Lonesome Cowboys plays into the popular Romantic notions of the Old West by being so totally dependent on the recognizable signifiers and tropes of the genre.  Billy The Kid in Moullet’s film is, therefore, the antithesis of the genre itself.

That said, A Girl Is A Gun brings a bit of that Romanticism into play in terms of the films theme song and visual structure.  But these mechanisms, in Moullet’s hands, work only to compliment and enhance the anti-Romanticism of the narrative.  A Girl Is A Gun only superficially functions as a Western.  As the film perverts the Romantic models it employs via the contrast of narrative content and technique, Moullet is able to disassemble and examine the Western Genre.

This deconstruction of the genre is playful, the precise opposite of the intellectualized genre deconstructions that Jean-Luc Godard became famous for in the sixties.  This playfulness derives from A Girl Is A Gun‘s relatively low-budget, forcing Moulett to make a Western without either the vistas of Ford, the violence of Anthony Mann, nor the horses of every other Western.  Moulett, like Warhol and Morrissey, is forced to make the film with the available resources, even if that restricts the films Western “look” to props and costume.

It must be said that this “superficiality of genre” in A Girl Is Gun comes from a unique place in the history of the genre.  Where Sam Fuller may make a low-budget Western and accommodate that budget by distilling the narrative down to a hard-punching tale of revenge, Moullet decides instead to pay for devices such as a theme song with his budget.  This decision on Moullet’s part places A Girl Is A Gun into the same category of “Western Camp” as Lonesome Cowboys, Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar, John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), and Douglas Sirk’s Taza-Son Of Cochise (1954).  Critics like Jonas Mekas would interpret this alignment of stylistic concerns with Pop Art, which seems to be what A Girl Is A Gun is getting at.

Luc Moullet obviously does not have a strong Romantic connection with the Western genre.  For him it is a unique spectacle in that it is a legitimate genre.  A Girl Is A Gun is a testament to Moullet’s view of the cinema as entertainment first and foremost.

So certainly, if we can tell evil stories to make people sick, we can also tell good myths that make them well.”-R.W. Fassbinder

Whity

Gunther Kauffman & Hana Schygulla in Whity

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity (1971), released the same year as Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun, adopts the “Western Camp” aesthetic of Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious and blows it up to Brechtian proportions.  Whity, more so than any other Western, infuses with its Historic Romanticism the rich melodrama of the fifties “Weepy” or “Woman’s Film”.  For Fassbinder the Western provides a means of examining the political and sociological relations between sex, class and race.  Taking his cues from Douglas Sirk’s period at Universal Pictures, Fassbinder seizes the chance to exploit the most American of movie genres to ironically critic the state of the world at large.

Firstly, the theatricality of “camp” is heightened not just in Fassbinder’s direction of his actors, but in the blocking and framing.  Photographed by Michael Ballhaus in a series of predominantly long lasting wide shots, the cast is positioned so that they are almost always facing out, regardless of how many characters are in a scene or the nature of this interaction.  This strategy, often summed up as Brechtian, allows the subtext of a scene to emerge superficially through the actors’ over-sized performances.  When contextualizing this choice by Fassbinder in the Western genre, Whity becomes a critique of the Western Romanticism and its own subtextual racism and sexism.  Westerns have functioned as allegories for contemporary issues before, it is true, but not so within the vernacular of Fassbinder’s particular brand of “camp”.

 At the heart of Whity is the story of an interracial love affair akin to his own Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974).  Gunther Kauffman and Hana Schygulla play a house servant slave and a saloon mistress whose love is forbidden.  Their union, emotionally and sexually, is not only verboten, but reminiscent of Dietrich and Kennedy’s May/December romance in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious.  The very manner with which Schygulla performs her songs in the local saloon intentionally recalls Dietrich.  Kauffman’s dark skin that keeps him a rung below on the ladder in this Western town also recalls the “outsider” in films like Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) or George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939).  The difference being a matter of race rather than cowardice or femininity.

The scenes of Kauffman at the rancher’s estate where he is a slave to his half-siblings are a step removed from the Western.  These scenes play out like an anti-white parody of Gone With The Wind (1939), complete with white actors wearing white face.  But it is the sadistic and exploitative quality of the sex and violence in these sequences that bolster the sense of artifice with not just their outlandishness, but in their striking similarity to Italian exploitation films of the same period.  Whity is very modern in this respect since its concerns have little to do with the world of the Old West as it was and everything to do with what a Western can say about society in the present.

The modernity of Whity can also be seen in another respect.  In scenes at the saloon when cowboys and gunslingers are hanging about, Fassbinder has positioned them so that their posture maximizes the homoeroticism of the genre.  In this he is more subtle than Morrissey and Warhol but also more realistic since most homosexuals are not as depraved or aggressive as the cowboys in Lonesome Cowboys.

The accumulation of all of these parts within the confines of a Western allow Whity to exist beyond the genre.  In terms of style one couldn’t call it a Western at all since there is no visual or narrative connection beyond some subtle allusions.  Pieces may be seen as distinctly Western, but the whole of the parts evolves into something so post-modern that it is uncategorizable.  As though he were aware of this, Fassbinder opens and closes Whity with a ballad about the title character sung by Gunther Kauffman.  This strategy forces the audience to take this non-Western and interpret it as such.

If only he had realized all his ideas, he could have become one of the greatest.”-Sergio Leone

The Great Silence

Klaus Kinski in The Great Silence

Sergio Corbucci has long-lived in the shadow of Sergio Leone.  One cannot read about Corbucci’s work without the inevitable comparison to Leone, despite the fact that the two men have highly contrasting styles and aesthetic concerns in their approach to the Western genre.  Corbucci’s films are noted for their loose style and hyper energy.  Sometimes a particular sequence seems muddy or out-of-place, but the overall feeling of Corbucci’s style is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the genre, very similar to Luc Moullet.  What the Italians did with the Western genre was to re-appropriate it after it had been filtered through Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961).  The Italian Western, Corbucci’s films included, champion an anti-hero, depict governments as corrupt, and exploit the violence and sexuality of the genre.

The Great Silence (1968) sees Corbucci taking the Italian Western a step further.  Though the Italian Westerns added a grittier element to the genre, they still followed the basic principles of good and evil that can be traced back to Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail and even further.  The Great Silence shatters this balance of negative and positive, concluding with a bleak, existential morality.

It’s interesting to note that The Great Silence pre-dates the shifts in the American Western aesthetic that would occur in the seventies.  Robert Altman’s meditative Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) would be the first to outright contradict the forms one associates with the Western film.  Prior to that, American filmmakers such as Sam Fuller, Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann preferred anti-heroes working within a corrupt moral system but still maintained the regular signifiers and conformed to the basic narrative expectations of the Western.

The Great Silence is like any other Corbucci film.  It’s violent, the characters are corrupt, the hero has a gadget gimmick and an odd name (in this case Silence) and the villains are sadistic.  Yet, in the last act when Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is expected to defeat his nemesis, despite his wounds, he fails.  Silence is murdered by the man he should have defeated, Locco (Klaus Kinski).  As a result of Silence’s death the starving townspeople living in exile, because of their differing ethnicity, are butchered by Locco and his gang.  This ending speaks to Corbucci’s bleak outlook on life.  For him the righteous are not always victorious.

That this ending comes in a film who, until its end, fits so nicely into the regular genre makes it all the more shocking and impactful.  The Great Silence, like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), addresses the Johnson County range war with a contemporary leftist commentary.  Corbucci treats The Great Silence as a sort of allegory for the failed student riots and demonstrations that occurred in Rome in 1967 and 1968.  In the following decade this is the role, the function, that the Western genre would play.  Marking the genesis of the revisionist Western.

I created ‘The Westerner’ because of anger – anger at never-miss sheriffs, always-right marshalls, whitewashed gunfighters … anger at TV’s quick-draw tin gods who stand behind a tin star or ten cents’ worth of righteous anger and justify their skill and slaughter with a self-conscious grin or a minute’s worth of bad philosophy.”-Sam Peckinpah

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

The Revisionist Western that came to prominence in the early seventies at around the same time the New Hollywood began, like the latter, dissipated after Heaven’s Gate.  Since then filmmakers have tried to strike a balance between the philosophical complexity and grittiness of the Revisionist Western with the Historical Romanticism of the Western of the fifties and before.  Clint Eastwood has consistently made Westerns in line with Revisionism while others, such as Alex Cox with Walker (1987), attempted to fuse the genre with a blaring sense of post-modernism.

The least interesting and least successful Westerns have tended to be those dressed up in the grit of Revisionist Westerns that function on every other level as Romantic Westerns.  Unfortunately films such as these tend to be more popular.  In most recent years the best example of this nostalgic phenomenon would have to be the Cohen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).

It is unfortunate that the genre has been unable to perpetuate itself into a new form at the beginning of the 21st century.  This is even more unusual when one considers the renewed sense of nationalism America is still experiencing after 9/11.  Perhaps this is because America, as a nation, is attempting to move beyond its pre-WWII past?  That’s an essay for another time.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under lists

Proof Of Cinema

“For at least two years I have felt ready to make some theoretical statements about film language in relation to the ‘Underground’ film.  A problem which has held me up is the discrepancy I feel between the actual experience I get from film making and viewing – the erraticness, impulsiveness and irrationality – and the linear logic that emerges from writing about it.  The clarity of a verbal statement creates a misleading feeling of having understood or stablished a set of experiences or phenomena, and one is tempted to let it substitute for the less conveniently comprehended physicality of image-experience.”

-Malcolm LeGrice, 1972

Malcolm LeGrice's Berlin Horse (1970)

Malcolm LeGrice’s Berlin Horse (1970)

an introduction to a set of circumstances

Writing about the cinema in the last couple of years has become increasingly difficult.  When I first began writing about films in a pseudo-professional capacity for CIP late in 2011 the cinema seemed to be a succinct and easily definable medium.  In part this was due to the assignments I had been receiving (usually a retrospective analysis of a “classic” French film), but also the fact that when I had begun writing about the cinema I had just graduated from college.  It was in college, particularly in classes dealing with film history, that the cinema was presented as a broad yet recognizable category of Fine Art that contained within it a series of easily categorizable elements, labels, and genres.  This limited view of the cinema was the gospel, reiterated time and again as a dirge of propaganda.

A year after college and six months into working for CIP some real perspective began to accumulate.  As I continued to make film after film it became increasingly evident that there is a fluidity to the cinema.  One cannot make a film that is exclusively one way or another, nor can one limit one’s self to a singular reading of a film.  Every film is unique in its way; a link in the chain of the career of its author, be it the director, producer, writer or cinematographer.  What’s problematic is that after such a realization that fundamentally redefines one’s notions of the cinema, this realization has a rippling effect.  As one trains one’s mind to interpret and invent the cinema, one begins to find the cinema in places where one was instructed it simply did not exist when one was in college.  Of course I am referring to web-series, American Television,  pop-up installations, fan made photo montages of celebrities on YouTube, etc.  Just as technology permeates every aspect of human existence, so the cinema permeates every aspect of technological existence.  In the last five years the fluidity of the cinema, which struck me as so profound several years ago, has doubled.  The adaptability of the cinema, along with its accessibility, appears to be an expansive force, a global tidal wave crashing over human culture in a rhythm, successive yet sustained.

Michael Snow at the Jack Shainman Gallery in 2013.

Michael Snow at the Jack Shainman Gallery in 2013.

parameters for an argument

In a media environment where labels are quickly becoming void of their original meaning a discussion of cinematic principles is becoming increasingly difficult.  Almost out of necessity I’m tempted to ground the evolution of the cinema of the past fifty years in the context of one filmmaker’s career or another.  Michael Snow would be, in my opinion, the best candidate for such a discussion if I were to go that route.  Never as popular as he deserves to be, Michael Snow’s career charts, almost too perfectly, the modes of cinematic production and its evolution from the “Underground” films of the seventies to the multi-media and video installations of today.  Snow’s voice and aesthetic interests have remained consistent, propelled into new technologies only by Snow’s sincere desire to create.

But to lead such a discussion with Michael Snow as its center piece would only be beneficial to those who have already immersed themselves in a cinema where narrative and the possibility for escapism are not requirements of the cinematographic langue.  To most audiences the requirements of the cinema demand a fabricated reality, a fiction indebted to the conventions of literature.  So the discussion must include filmmakers who have sought to dearrange these popular principles of cinematic convention but who have also, even if only on a theoretical basis, pushed the cinema into uncharted avenues.

The best candidate to open this discussion, who is coincidently one of Michael Snow’s earliest champions, is Jean-Marie Straub.  Born to the same generation as Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, Straub’s career goes back to the fifties when he first began collaborating with his wife Danièle Huillet (1936-2006).  Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s films, in a physical sense, are dominated by long static compositions with a minimalist approach to blocking and set design.  Their films represent a distillation of the cinema to its primal elements.  What makes this duo relevant is their consistency in their aesthetic approach that maintained their position as a truly unique force in world cinema for over forty years.

Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub's Sicilia! (1999)

Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub’s Sicilia! (1999)

“this is really a film for children”-Danièle Huillet

It’s important to any analysis of European Cinema, especially German cinema, to bear in mind the tremendous influence Walter Benjamin had on the filmmakers who would originate the French and German New Waves of the sixties.  Despite their birthplaces, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub have a distinctly German voice to their cinematic expressions; Straub himself was a mentor to Rainer Werner Fassbinder after all.  But in the interest of space and time, it would, perhaps, be helpful to turn to critic/filmmaker Alexander Kluge for an astute summation of the aesthetic principles that he, as well as Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, aspired to.

“A very easy method would be for the audience to stick to the individual shots, to whatever they happen to be seeing at any given moment.  They must watch closely.  Then they can happily forget, because their imagination does all the rest.  Only someone who doesn’t relax, who is all tensed up, who searches for a leitmotif, or is always finding links with the ‘cultural heritage’, will have difficulties.  He’s not watching closely anymore.  What he sees is semi-abstract and not concrete.  It would be a help if he quietly recites to himself what he hears and sees.  If he does that it won’t be long before he notices the sense of the succession of shots.  That way he’ll learn how to deal with himself and his own impressions.”  (Film Comment, Vol. 10, no. 6, 1974)

What Kluge proposes Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub realized in their films.  As I stated earlier, the physical attributes of their work correspond to Kluge’s proposed distillation of cinematic expression.  If one examines one of their later works, Sicilia! (1999), one is struck by how little the film explains with regards to the underlying narrative purpose of the film.  The scenes simply “exist”, and it is in their chronological alignment that meaning can be found.  As with Kluge, this meaning must be manufactured by the audience.  Wrongfully, this approach to narrative cinema is typically referred to as “too intelligent” primarily because a film such as Sicilia! depends so much upon the participation of its audience.

This cinematic model of distillation is similarly at work in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie (1962).  However, Godard minimizes the involvement of his audience by inserting title cards between each of the scenes or vignettes in Vivre sa Vie.  These title cards, like the chapters in a novel, explain to a minimal degree what it is that the audience is about to see happen, thus allowing the audience to concentrate its attention on the more superficial elements of the film.  Without these title cards Vivre sa Vie would have the effect of Sicillia! or Moses & Aron (1975).  Even more commercial filmmakers, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, adopted the Kluge/Straub/Huillet approach only to minimize audience participation in different ways.  Fassbinder’s Beware Of A Holy Whore (1971) relieves the audience of some responsibility through the direction of its actors and its fluid cinematography.  The effect of this is Brechtian, thus recognizable and easily contextualized.

This approach to the cinematographic langue is not, by any means, an effort restricted to the generation of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub.  Their influence strongly colored Chantal Akerman’s early narrative efforts Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978).  Likewise, Hal Hartley makes use of this aesthetic approach significantly, and rather subtly, in his film Henry Fool (1998).  It is at the core of this aesthetic that the audience must, to a degree, join the filmmaker in authoring the film itself.  In contrary to the belief that such a mode of cinematic expression is “too intelligent”, these films, and this style in particular, remain one of the most accessible of the cinema.  So much so that Danièle Huillet, in the first issue of the British film magazine Enthusiasm, once observed that her film with Jean-Marie Straub, Not Reconciled (1965) was “really a film for children”.

Jean-Luc Godard's film Passion (1982)

Jean-Luc Godard’s film Passion (1982)

“all art may be seen as a mode of proof”-Susan Sontag

In the Summer/Autumn issue of Moviegoer published in 1964, Susan Sontag outlined the aesthetic impact of Godard’s Vivre sa Vie.  It’s safe to say that at this point America was unaware of Alexander Kluge, Danièle Huillet, and Jean-Marie Straub.  Regardless, Sontag pinpoints their desired cinematic intent and puts it very succinctly when she terms it “proof”; a cinema of proof.  By contrast, all other commercial cinema not conforming to the aesthetics proposed by Kluge and Sontag belong to the cinema of analysis (“analysis” is the word Sontag chose as the opposite of “proof” in her article).

A cinema of proof today seems almost impossible.  Consider the period critics refer to as the Second French New Wave (1978-1984).  Filmmakers Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard are finding renewed commercial success with their films, films that have remained as provocative and innovative as Breathless (1960) was many years before.  Godard, the most internationally marketable filmmaker of the three, found his success short-lived in the market of the “blockbuster spectacle” when he released Passion (1982).  Passion, despite its self, remains one of the finest examples of what we have in this essay been terming the cinema of proof.  It’s a film that employs the tactics of Straub and Huillet with the wit to dissociate the audience from the would-be protagonist (played by Hanna Schygulla) and re-associate them with the director (played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz) by means of a shared experience (audience contribution equated with traditional film authorship).  In this way Godard’s Passion succeeds where Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of A Woman (1982) stumbles.  Still, neither film found any success beyond the critics and champions of these filmmakers.

Consider now that a cultural environment existed in the sixties and seventies that allowed a cinema of proof to flourish, and compare those conditions with the needs audiences tax upon their different forms of media today.  A cinema of proof would be impossible.  If the sixties were Godard’s golden period (in terms of success) then the 2010s would be the age for Luc Moullet’s drastic reappraisal.

Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers (2009)

Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009)

“illness always has a few beneficial side effects”-Gilles Taurand

From the perspective of 2015 the idea of a cinema of proof seems an almost Romantic notion.  I’ve read that Jean-Marie Straub considered his films (and thusly those films that follow the same aesthetic guidelines) to be “eternal” in both their simplicity and accessibility.  His notions, however, are dependant on an audience willing to invest what Kluge fondly referred to as their “imagination” into the film viewing process.  In 2015 technology along with the speed of daily life prohibits that kind of investment, relegating this would-be utopian cinema to a kind of touchstone by which to asses the success of other films in incorporating the audience into an intellectual dialogue.

Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) utilizes Straub’s aesthetic in literal terms but its sheer gross-out spectacle leaves little room for the imagination.  Similarly, the films of Andrea Arnold come close to this but always back off to safer narrative convention in the third act, as if the climax of her films would be too difficult for audiences otherwise.  The distillation championed by Straub could still find renewal in a form of new technology, in which case an entire reassessment of aesthetic models would be mandatory in order to better calibrate the juxtaposition between manufactured image and spectator.  What Straub gives us today is a kind of looking-glass through which cinema may be measured and accounted for in certain areas.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

Beethoven’s Nephew

About a year ago I had a forty-five minute telephone conversation with director Paul Morrissey. I was ecstatic beyond belief, Morrissey being one of my cinematic heroes, a hero who has gone greatly under appreciated in this country and often neglected. The most pleasurable part of this conversation was Morrissey’s willingness to discuss his film Beethoven’s Nephew (1985). Beethoven’s Nephew has had one home video release in America back in the eighties largely because of copyright and ownership issues that have arisen as an on going conflict between the film’s writer/director and his European producers. These circumstances have kept Beethoven’s Nephew, as well as Morrissey’s other later day masterpiece Spike Of Bensonhurst (1988), out of the public’s sight and mind. As a result studies on the cinema of Paul Morrissey are largely restricted to his work for Warhol, his seventies cult classics, European horror comedies, and the street gang soap opera Mixed Blood (1982), negating the consideration of what I consider Morrissey’s most mature work, Beethoven’s Nephew.

tumblr_mfegw0FEXr1qio3jlo1_500
Morrissey’s career post his break from the Warhol brand after Flesh For Frankenstein (1974) resulted with a decline in the director’s profile. Until 1975 Morrissey had been working in the shadow of Andy Warhol, trading on the pop artist’s name to obtain international distribution for the kind of underground films that rarely got out of Downtown New York city. The films that follow are indicative of a few things, the first being Morrissey’s continued outsider status in Hollywood, secondly that Morrissey’s popularity in Europe ensured exclusive overseas financing, and lastly that no one knew what kind of films Paul Morrissey should be making. When Morrissey returned to independent filmmaking with Mixed Blood he also returned to the break out aesthetic of his most renowned works Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Women In Revolt (1971). When Mixed Blood failed to find an audience Morrissey began seeking a project that could be made independently in Europe, whose subject matter could attract the consideration of serious critics and in turn put the director’s career back on track (a narrative that has always been common place among the lives of independent filmmakers from the likes of John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch to that of John Waters).
But Paul Morrissey was not out for the kind of art house status so many filmmakers crave, in fact, Morrissey intended Beethoven’s Nephew to be a more entertaining and informative commercial film than the highly publicized Oscar winner Amadeus (1984). To ensure bankability, Morrissey lifted certain aspects of Amadeus’ narrative construction, but filtered these components to create a minimalist tableaux of vignettes that are strung together thematically more so than narratively. Morrissey’s co-writer, Mathieu Carriere, was entrusted with obtaining historical materials that could provide a trustworthy reference point with the hope of the film transcending the conventions of the average Hollywood biopic. The result of this peculiar form that the film has taken is entirely psychological. Beethoven’s Nephew works as a sort of psychological dossier on Beethoven whose scenes either function to give evidence to certain traits in Beethoven’s character or to explain the origins of certain obsessions and desires.
The key aspect of Morrissey’s depiction of Beethoven centers, as the title suggests, on the composer’s relationship with his nephew. In Morrissey’s film it is proposed that Beethoven’s sexual obsession with his nephew, so terribly suppressed, manifests itself in the form of possessiveness and various attempts at complete control. The equating of desire with control had long been a driving force in the cinema of Paul Morrissey. Consider any scene in Trash where Joe Dallesandro is propositioned for sex. When it is revealed Dallesandro can’t keep a hard-on the supporting characters begin crafting other means with which to control Joe. In Beethoven’s Nephew, as opposed to the numerous relationships addressed in Trash, the focus on sexual politics is centered on a single relationship whose analysis lasts the entire duration of the film. In this way Morrissey permits himself to engage in an active meditation on this theme that he presents to his audience as a perverted Punch & Judy Show.

A70-13055
Beethoven’s Nephew is also one of Morrissey’s rare films without an American actor, such as Joe Dallesandro, in the lead. Famous singer and actress Jane Birkin features prominently in the film as Johanna, with the larger than life Wolfgang Reichmann as Beethoven. This film, unlike Morrissey’s previous ventures, is cast to obtain the sort of marketable pedigree of Hollywood’s all-star biographical extravaganza box office films. It’s obvious now, looking back, that the casting choices for Beethoven’s Nephew were too European and therefore quite unknown in America, therefore bypassing the very purpose of such casting.
It was all about the timing for Paul Morrissey. Where once his timing had been perfect with Flesh in 1968, his timing had become grossly inhibiting, causing his most nuanced film to be shelved after a brief limited run. When talking to Paul Morrissey on the phone a year ago about this film his anger was still palatable. His attempt at a come back had failed despite all of his skill and careful planning, and he was never again afforded the opportunities that had once greeted him at the onset of the seventies.

-Robert Curry

1 Comment

Filed under international films

Borges & Frampton

It’s interesting to consider how the depiction of memory has changed since the 19th century.  Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life Of Charlotte Bronte, James Boswell’s The Life Of Samuel Johnson and James Longstreet’s From Manassas To Appomattox all read of their time when it was taboo to detail personal relationships to persons, events or otherwise.  Since the 20th century it is standard for any art form to depict that that is wholly personal to its author.  This is true of the artist’s approach to memory.  Where Longstreet would restrict his accounts to statistics and figures, Frank Harris would supply a reader with a story warts and all in My Life & Loves, but specifically with his own ideas included.  Hollis Frampton does the same, but transposes a biographical account to the medium of film.  Is a biography not just one man’s account of his life as memory serves?  This is the question of 20th century art forms.  Frampton may even go so far as to dissect this proposition of biography in Nostalgia (1971), much as Borges did in his text Borges & I, though with the elegance reserved for such endeavors as proposed by Bergson’s work that made both men’s works possible.   Yet, the question is, within art, how does the incorporation of “time” (reflexive or not] manipulate the memories which the artist depicts?

In Creative Evolution, Bergson proposes all experience takes place in time, and for a film artist such as Hollis Frampton this is inescapably true.  Film as a medium manipulates and transposes time in an accepted narrative line whilst still adhering to it’s very own duration as a piece.  Frampton works his art on Bergson’s “sensory plane”, in that his piece Nostalgia is both visual and audible; however Frampton takes one step beyond this in how he manipulates this ‘sensory plane” to be even more reflective of his film’s duration.  To put it simply, the audio of Michael Snow’s voice-over narration’s content does not sync with the image which Frampton presents his audience.  Therefore, the audience must do two things which, as a byproduct, bring the film’s duration in time to a sensory forefront.  First, one must pay close attention to that which Snow describes, for it will be the backstory to the anticipated image yet to be seen.  Furthermore, one must retain the content of the image, to better understand the preceding explanation Snow has given the audience.  This is a process as muddled as it appears here, hence, the primary sensation Frampton has given his audience is not one of a documentary (which Nostalgia essentially is as far as content is concerned), but rather illustrates, through the audience, the time it takes to remember and the sensation of remembering.

Frampton’s background as a photographer, which is the focus of Nostalgia, has conditioned him to deal with time in a unique way.  As is well known, photography began as a documentary tool in the 19th century and has arguably never lost the association.  Therefore, it seems fair to suggest that Frampton manipulated his film with the essence of the photographic purpose in mind.    Justifying the duration of shots as well as documenting in real time the experience he meant to capture.  That is to say as a recording tool, the movie camera operated within the parameters of Bergson’s “mechanical time” whilst documenting the organic, which in this case are flames.

On the other end of the avant garde film spectrum is Jean Genet’s The Song Of Love (1950).  Genet comes from a literary background similar to Pasolini, though with a stronger, overriding concern with the novel as a means of dearranging linear narrative time.  To illustrate the emotional content of his memories of incarceration, Genet employed many of the effects pioneered in the fantasy films of Jean Cocteau [who often visited Genet’s set].  Genet opts for emotional content and emotive experience through expressionistic terms and tactics over the reflexive technicalities of Hollis Frampton, with a result more instep with Alfred Doblin’s depiction of memory in the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.

“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” (Borges, page 246]  It’s that sensation of remembering from the present that Borges makes tangible in his story Borges and I, and is also the aesthetic sensation of the author in Frampton’s Nostalgia, the author who is Frampton himself, just like Borges.  Borges uses his “present voice” to recall his past in the third person, and splitting the identity of Borges into the Borges of then and now.  Frampton makes the same tactic applicable to film in an arguably reflexive manner in that the image is the work of Hollis Frampton photographer made in the early 1960s, while the voice of the now (during screenings] is of Mike Snow, a filmmaker.  The change in identity, Frampton to Snow is just as significant and meaningful in the continuity of continuous time as the change in career, photographer to filmmaker.  Hence the identity of both Borges and Frampton has been split by past experience to present “shared” experience with their respective audiences/readers.  This division of identity over a matter of time reinforces Bergson’s idea of “organic time”.

Borges’ approach to the theory of “organic time” is of the very poetic, in which he juxtaposes the physical author with the mental representation of the same author, and though they share one identity, only the “mental” is given a voice.  Throughout the piece allusions are made to the everyday life of the writer Borges, yet, according to Bergson, no act can ever be exactly repeated by an organic entity.  Thus, Borges, when writing Borges & I, was remembering uniquely, as will his reader.  But upon a second read, all will not be as remembered, which is a point the voice of the “mental” makes in the piece.  It is then arguable that Borges’ piece is as reflexive as Frampton’s.

“Efforts stored up in the present is indeed also a memory,”[Bergson, page 51] describes perfectly the sensation the audience feels while ingesting the works of Frampton and Borges.  Though the audience/reader feels they are taking part in both respective works in one single moment, in actuality they are experiencing physically the passage of time.  Thus the suspension of mental awareness by stimuli creates a plastic sensation of time, which both Frampton and Borges exploit in their audience/reader as well as depict within their pieces.

The latter proposition seems particularly relevant in Nostalgia.  Film is the physical representation of time in it’s passing, which the audience surely knows though is compelled to understand the plastic time of the film as a given reality.  Thus, as each photograph in Frampton’s piece is burnt and replaced with a new photograph, the audience resets its mental clocks.  When a film is understood on such a compartmentalized level, one begins to understand better the beginnings and endings which exist within a film working down from scenes to sequences, sequences to shots, shots to frames.  The construct of Frampton’s film, it’s repetition, disjointed information, and split author all work in unison to likewise compartmentalize the audience’s sense of time.  For instance, at the start of a new shot it is typical that a viewer will ponder the facts before, the photo now, and the photo to come; in other words they are remembering to remember what they remembered while only being conscious of the now while sub-consciously acknowledging the passing of time.

Bergson’s phrase “organic time” has some rather unique ramifications.  “Organic Time” when put in the most simplest of terms means that organisms, always undergoing the process of change and development, cannot repeat the same action twice.  This opens up a new theory in the interpretation of Nostalgia.   Though Snow’s voice over is a constant mechanical recording, a change will occur within the audience.  No audience member will view the film and take part in it’s process of remembering the same way twice according to Bergson.  Thus it is proposed that Frampton has constructed a film which builds layer upon layer of remembering to remember having remembered again; a process so complicated in the mechanics of the mind, yet trivial to human experience.

Which is where the before mentioned concept of plastic time becomes dominant.  Borges’ construction of time in Borges & I is stilted in it’s retrospective observations since text must occupy a “mechanical time” in contrast to Borges the man who exists in “organic time”.  This is not so much a juxtaposition as an ending achieved through contrasting means.  For only in the medium of “mechanical time” can Borges illustrate the sensations of “organic time” which are then shared with his readers.  It is an uneasy contradiction which is addressed with in the text itself.  The “mental” of the author in Borges & I experiences organic time, but perceives his physical counterpart to inhabit “mechanical time”.  It may even be read as a dehumanization of one in favor for the other by Borges himself [outside his text that is].  The same is applicable to Nostalgia.  The mechanical time of film embodies in it’s visual illusions the organic time of the director and his audience.

It seems a justifiable counter argument that film and literature are void of “organic time” because such a sensation is only achieved via an illusion.   But it is the illusion which is the sensational for the persons observing, the tangible to those unaware of the nuanced mechanics within the mediums that the pieces exist.

It is through such rigorous manipulations of time that the sensation of memory and in turn self reflection can be emoted through a piece and to it’s audience.  As a race, humanity has been obsessive  about shared experiences; one may argue that all art is fundamentally inspired by such a drive.  Yet, it seems relevant that the pre-occupation with time, which so clearly defines humanity on a person to person basis, should provoke the highly conceptual planes of experience that Borges and Frampton strive to lift their audience to.

The plane of experience though mathematical and calculated in Frampton’s work, does lack the lyricism of Borges.  Borges has the ability to, in his fiction, wed the differing approaches to the experience of time and sensation of memory which Jean Genet and Hollis Frampton represent.  The poetry of lyricism is a human sensibility, and may indeed move Borges’ piece deeper into the spectrum of “organic time”.   Consider the emotive quality of poetry, and it’s contrasting meaning to those who have varying experiences and backgrounds.  Thus it seems reasonable to propose that poetry has the organic quality that most writing does not.  Since Borges [being a skilled poet himself] plays with time through his poetic sensitivity; isn’t it fair to speculate that his work will posses the merits of “organic time” more dominantly that Frampton’s Nostalgia?

Bergson’s notion of “organic” and “mechanical” time define the back bone of the works Borges & I and Nostalgia.  The pieces differ immensely in form, medium, and reflexivity, but share the common concern of what does memory mean to human kind and how is it felt?  Perhaps too broad or too vague, but none the less, Borges and Frampton endeavored to search themselves for an answer.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films